Schooner American: Evolution of a Cape May Tradition

Text by Jennifer Kopp • Historic photographs courtesy of The Laudeman Family / August 2015

It was an innovative idea at the time. A first-of-its-kind floating cocktail lounge.

Wally Laudeman and his wife Marijane, side by side, opened The Marine Bar in 1954 as a small restaurant primarily specializing in seafood and burgers. A devastating fire in 1964 changed the course of dining in Cape May, when the Laudemans expanded into what is now The Lobster House Restaurant at Fisherman’s Wharf.

In 1964, Wally had the notion to find a schooner to dock outside the eatery. He found the vessel, Roy M, a 125-foot fishing schooner built in Lundenburg, Nova Scotia. Wally had the Roy M towed down from Lundenburg and in 1965, the renamed Schooner American opened to the public.
“I remember my family putting the kids to bed and heading down to the schooner for a drink or two. It was the place to go,” says Susan Laudeman. This was long before she met her future husband, Keith Laudeman, son of Wally and Marijane, who now runs the establishment.

Operating completely under deck, the first schooner featured a bar, and served burgers delivered from the restaurant. Despite a dock fire in 1972, the Schooner American spent 20 years moored alongside the Lobster House Restaurant.

But eventually, the years and Mother Nature took their toll. Maintenance was constant and exhausting, and in 1985 the second Schooner American arrived at The Lobster House, also built in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.

She was the product of Smith & Rhuland, famous schooner builders from 1900 to 1967. Her original owner was E. Fenwick Zwicker, a well-known Free Mason in Lunenburg. In fact, the boat, built in 1934, was originally named the EF Zwicker. As a trawler, she was renamed The Captain James Cook. She later served as a seamanship training boat until she went up for sale and was purchased by Wally to replace the Roy M, and sailed to Cape May from Norfolk, Virginia. With a beautiful white wooden hull, she was larger than the original at 140 feet long. Just as popular as the first schooner, she unfortunately met the same fate.

Flooding was a major issue, Susan says. “Keith would keep a beeper with him at all times just in case.” Another wooden hull, and water—especially sea water—just don’t mix well. An extraordinarily expensive effort was made to save her, and local craftsman did their best to help, but it was all for naught. In 2001, she was towed offshore and sunk as part of a barrier reef.

And that’s when the Laudemans decided to build the third Schooner American out of steel. It was another Grand Banks schooner, similar to the Captain James Cook, both inspired by floating oyster barges which sailed in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Keith contracted Yank Marine in Tuckahoe to build the third schooner, this one to be 130 feet long. Yank Marine Inc. was established in Dorchester on the Tuckahoe River in 1969 by John C. Yank Jr. Over the years, John Yank has continued to gain a reputation, building more than 100 vessels, including 87 that are United States Coast Guard-certified passenger vessels.

It took a year and a half to build the new schooner. Keith traveled to Dorchester regularly, “keeping his finger on the pulse of everything in the new boat,” says Susan. And in the spring of 2001, the steel-hulled Schooner American was towed from Dorchester and launched at The Lobster House.

A bar was installed topside in 2003 and more deck space added. Many of the elements from the former two Schooner Americans were incorporated into the new one. The hatch, fittings, and the captain’s wheel are original features from the Roy M and the Captain James Cook, and the food is still served from below deck through the hatch in the center of the ship. “Tremendous effort was put into maintaining the integrity of the ship, keeping it as close to the former two as possible,” says Susan.

While the steel-hulled boat currently has no sails, she is seaworthy. Indeed. Yank’s Marine would not build a ship that doesn’t stringently adhere to set architectural guidelines. The Schooner American is perfectly able to set sail or motor out into the wide blue sea.

Sailors aboard ships like these placed coins under the mast during a process called “mast stepping,” or raising a boat’s mast. It also refers to a ceremonial occasion which occurs when the mast is stepped, towards the end of a ship’s construction. The ceremony involves placing or welding one or more coins into the mast step of a ship, and is thought to bring good luck.

“I found silver and gold coins under each of the [other] schooner’s masts,” Keith says. “In Canada they would place silver coins, and in the United States, gold coins. I put a gold coin under the third schooner’s mast to keep with this tradition.”

Tradition seems the key word in the Laudeman family, sometimes unintentionally. When Susan was a child, her family found an original painting of The Lobster House and the Schooner American by artist C.X. Carlson, a well-known painter (1901–1991). It was at Blanche’s Gifts, a boardwalk shop in Cape May. The cost of the painting was $75, and the year was 1967. Susan’s family put the painting on layaway, finally paying it off by the end of the summer. “They hung it prominently on the wall of our house. I would watch Gilligan’s Island and look at the painting. Eventually it became a fixture in our house.”

Little did Susan know she would someday become part of the Laudeman legacy. “It really didn’t hit me until much later, after I married Keith,” she says. “Then I suddenly realized. I had lived with this piece of art for decades, never realizing I would become a Laudeman myself!” The painting now hangs on a wall in her own home, and has become a dearly treasured possession.

Cape May has the second largest dockage space on the East Coast. The fishing industry is second only to tourism here. Many lives in Cape May depend on the ocean and Mother Nature as they have for centuries, beginning with the whaling industry in 1688. The Laudemans are no exception. Besides the schooner and The Lobster House Restaurant, a seafood take-out store was added in 1970, and that was followed by the Raw Bar in 1985. The Laudemans also operate a commercial fishing fleet, with more than eleven million pounds of seafood offloaded at their Fisherman’s Wharf processing plant, then distributed to points around the globe.

The Laudemans are now celebrating 50 years of the schooner and sixty-one years of a family business. What began as a small restaurant serving up burgers, followed by the then-innovative idea of a floating cocktail lounge, has become a Cape May tradition.